POV: Universities Need to Invest in, and Support, Cultural Organizations for Students
They provide support and offer familiarity to those who may not see themselves reflected in a school’s demographics
I remember a conversation I had with my best friend, Jordan Phan (CAS’18), two years ago. I was telling her about how I regretted devoting so much time to the cultural organization we were a part of, the Boston University Filipino Student Association (BUFSA). I was convinced that all the time I spent consumed with being an active member and leader of the club robbed me of the academic accolades that I should have achieved. She yelled at me for saying that.
As I reflect upon my college experiences now, as a graduate student studying higher education at Harvard University, where I am learning college student development theory, I now see that I wasn’t robbed of anything. In fact, I now recognize that without BUFSA, I probably wouldn’t have made it to graduation.
My college experiences, especially during my first year at BU, taught me the impact of cultural organizations. Entering BU was the toughest transition of my life. It was the first time I was ever away from my family, but I was so confident that I would easily succeed as I had done in high school. I didn’t think I needed anyone—or any group. I was wrong and I am better for it.
At a time when budget cuts are prevalent on campuses because of the financial strain brought on by COVID-19, universities must continue to invest in, and increase their support for, cultural affinity groups. Cultural organizations are bright beacons of belonging on vast campuses like BU, with its over 16,000 undergraduate students, where it is inevitable that students will get lost.
Cultural organizations reflect systems of support and familiarity that is critical in facilitating a sense of belonging on campus for students. Transitioning to college can be particularly challenging for students who may not see themselves in the demographics of the campus. Cultural organizations provide these spaces. Research tells us that there is a positive effect when students are surrounded by others who share familiar stories, backgrounds, and identities. Students can navigate the transition to college, celebrate special holidays, and reminisce about childhood experiences—and think through potentially uncomfortable interactions they may experience with their white peers or faculty members. Equipped with a shared ethnic-racial identity, students can rely on one another for empathy and strategies to negotiate situations that might threaten their sense of belonging.
BUFSA provided me with the space to feel a sense of belonging on campus, something I was truly missing in my first few weeks at BU. Though I initially resisted the invitations of fellow Filipinos on campus to the club’s events, the loneliness I felt during one cold October night pushed me to seek out someone—anyone. Luckily, BUFSA was having a Halloween-themed event for freshmen that night. I swallowed my hesitation and went.
At the event, there was lumpia (the tastiest Filipino dish you will ever have), other freshmen speaking Tagalog, and most importantly for me, upperclassmen who welcomed this new batch of students with open arms. While there was no particular agenda for the night, simply being around others who looked and sounded like me, laughed at the same jokes that I suffered through growing up, and had the same worries about disappointing families with bad grades, made me feel like I somehow belonged.
Universities will benefit greatly from students who feel like they belong. The investment in cultural organizations that universities make will pay them back handsomely. If students feel like they belong on campus through spaces provided by cultural organizations, they will perform better. They will persist at greater rates through their college journeys and find the transformative college experience promised by these institutions.
Right now, in a time of social isolation and deep racial tension, cultural organizations are more important than ever. They are necessary safe havens to explore and negotiate what is happening in the world and where students belong in the current narrative. Universities must ensure that they are doing their part to maintain and expand the capacities of these organizations to support students.
I think back to the conversation I had with Jordan about this topic. I was silly to think that my GPA meant everything, and even sillier to think that my time in BUFSA was the culprit that brought down my grades. In reality, it was in those times when I felt the deepest sense of belonging, that I performed the best in my academics. I gave BUFSA a sliver of my time when I was in college and in return, it gave me my best friends, fondest memories, and a home I can—and do—go back to, even as an alum.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at firstname.lastname@example.org. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.